Safety & Accident

Policies & Programs to Reduce Distracted Driving

June 2015, Government Fleet - Feature

by Brittni Rubin

The City of Tulsa (Okla.) encourages its employees to pull over before using a cell phone. Photo courtesy of City of Tulsa
The City of Tulsa (Okla.) encourages its employees to pull over before using a cell phone. Photo courtesy of City of Tulsa

Tools such as smart phones have helped countless employees do their job more efficiently on the go. But when used inappropriately, they present serious adverse impacts too — predominantly when a user is driving.

At a Glance

When implementing new policies or programs related to distracted driving, fleet managers should consider the following tactics:

  • Strategic communication
  • Employee education and training
  • Enforcement protocol
  • Shaping workplace culture.

Distracted driving is the No. 1 cause of workplace deaths in the U.S., according to the National Safety Council.

Some government municipalities are imposing additional policies and introducing mandatory programs for their employees to more assertively elicit change. Government Fleet spoke with four public agencies making notable policy or program updates this year — the City of Tulsa , Okla.; the Iowa Department of Transportation; Sonoma County, Calif.; and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Here’s what they’re doing and why other agencies should consider following their footsteps. 

Programs to Combat Distraction

City of Tulsa: As of May 1, the City of Tulsa implemented a new distracted driving policy for all city employees. A 2010 policy already banned texting while driving, but the new policy includes a ban on all mobile devices (both handheld and hands-free) in addition to other common physical distractions while driving.

Tulsa’s policy for municipal employees is currently more stringent than President Obama’s Executive Order 13513, which prohibits texting while driving government vehicles or using government equipment.

“Obama’s order helped us get serious about creating policy, but we had been working on it before then,” said Eddy Tijerina, senior safety coordinator for the city. “Injuries and death in collisions related to distracted driving are exploding, so we want to prevent it instead of waiting for it to happen.”

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department: Similarly, to cut down on distraction, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has ordered its law enforcement staff to refrain from using in-­vehicle laptops for routine functions while driving. Since Feb. 25, the policy permits laptop usage while driving only in case of emergency, encouraging officers to rely on their radios instead. The new policy has been in the works for almost a year and is in response to recent distracted driving accidents, including one in which a deputy fatally wounded a bicyclist.

Iowa DOT: Iowa’s Department of Transportation (DOT) has had a policy in place since August of 2010 that bans handheld phones and texting while driving. However, it just implemented a department-­wide behavioral-based safety program, which urges all sectors of the agency to be more proactive about safe driving.

Iowa DOT hired a consultant to provide the curriculum and training. This includes a new safety observation protocol where employees can evaluate each other’s driving in the field. The department is also continuing to use Arch Angel, a program that disables laptop computers in law enforcement vehicles when the vehicle reaches 15 mph.

“We are constantly looking at ways to make safety more conducive to our employees’ daily operations,” said Dave Lorenzen, chief of Iowa’s Motor Vehicle Enforcement.

Sonoma County: Shirlee Zane, a supervisor from the third district of Sonoma County, along with other county employees, is part of a coalition focused on making streets safer. This year, Zane brought forward a “Gold Resolution,” which highlights greater distracted driving prevention initiatives in response to April’s distracted driving awareness month. She teamed with Sonoma County’s fleet operations division to create advertisements to raise awareness among government employees. These materials were placed in strategic locations including county fueling stations and maintenance facilities.

The county also mandated a handful of improved educational programs such as “Behind the Wheel,” a full day of training for county drivers.

In addition, the county is in the process of updating its vehicle use policy to fine-tune distracted driving language and list distractions.

Tips for Implementation

Need Help Creating Your New Policy?

Both the National Safety Council’s website (www.nsc.org) and the official U.S. government website for distracted driving (www.distraction.gov) have put together free cell phone policy kits. They include all of the materials needed to build leadership support for a cell phone policy and the tools to communicate it to employees.

Issuing a new policy or implementing a new program is a long process that can take years of work. The proposed policy or program usually undergoes a vetting stage that many agencies suggest completing thoroughly.

Zane advises agencies to check that the proposed plan is compliant with state laws and regulations first. Next, ask employees to weigh in with concerns or suggestions.

David Worthington, fleet manager for Sonoma County, recommends prospective policy makers pay close attention to language. “We can’t anticipate what technology will be available tomorrow or in five years from now,” he said. “Any distracted driving policy should be broad enough in nature yet include the ubiquitous words like ‘texting.’ ”

After a policy is vetted, scrutinized, and approved by management, only then can an agency begin the educational and implementation processes.

When it comes to successfully communicating a new program, education and marketing go hand-in-hand. A developed plan should start with an initial push of information out to drivers. This includes consistent messaging presented through different types of media to reach as many individuals as possible. Think about in-person or online classes, videos, handouts, Websites, giveaway items, meetings, social media, and public speakers.

Sonoma County (Calif.) uses this ad banner to promote safe driving. These are hung up around the county campus, at fueling stations, and maintenance facilities.
Sonoma County (Calif.) uses this ad banner to promote safe driving. These are hung up around the county campus, at fueling stations, and maintenance facilities.

“We brought in people who have had family members die in distracted driving events,” Tulsa’s Tijerina said. “We want to appeal to their emotional side to try and get our employees to find a ­deeper ­understanding of where the heart and mind come together on this issue.”

After training, follow up with additional marketing materials that serve as constant reminders of what was learned. Place banners or flyers in locations that have a high volume of foot and vehicle traffic. The county hung large banners at its fueling stations, maintenance facilities, and around the county campus. Employees now place a physical flyer on the driver’s seat in all motor pool vehicles.

“You want a good blend of graphics that quickly convey the message that distracted driving is dangerous and impacts lives along with statistics and resources for finding more in-depth info,” Worthington said.

Agencies can also deliver the safety message to those outside the agency. Sonoma County engages manufacturers in the discussion of distracted driving, distributes awareness packets, and sends e-mail blasts. Lee Wilkinson, director of the operations and finances division of Iowa’s DOT, suggests partnering with public employee unions to create a broader endorsement of the policy and eliminate any potential barriers.

The main takeaway, according to Tijerina, is that agencies can still do business in an efficient way without having to do it while driving. “Take the time to pull over in a safe location and return calls or e-mails,” Tijerina explained. “We find that employees are less stressed and better drivers. It improves personal organization for them as well.”

Monitor Driver Performance

Types of Distraction:

Cognitive Distraction: When a driver’s mind becomes distracted while driving or operating equipment.

Physical Distraction: When a driver/operator removes his/her hands and/or feet off of the controls while driving or operating vehicles/equipment.

Visual Distraction: When a driver/operator takes his/her eyes away from the road or area he/she is operating in for an unsafe amount of time while driving or operating vehicles/equipment.

Of the four government agencies surveyed, all spoke on the benefit of self-­enforcement. “Understanding the advantage of not using devices while driving leads to self-responsibility on the part of all employees,” Tijerina said. “We enforce that with continuous education.”

For Daniel Dail, a sergeant with LA County Sheriff’s Department’s traffic services detail, it all comes down to training. “For me personally, I like when actions are reinforced with positive training,” he said. “Get a good policy in place, learn from other people’s mistakes, and cite those mistakes in the training. That sticks with you.”

Nevertheless, agencies should also ­employ different methods of observation with options ranging from in-car cameras to peer reviews. Management can observe its crews by riding with them on occasion or watching from a separate vehicle — both elicit good coaching opportunities.

Tijerina said the City of Tulsa’s managers make it a point to ask, “Are you driving?” at the start of every conversation with their employees. Managers can help alleviate the pressure on employees surrounding delayed correspondence, a pressure that often leads to distracted driving. “We are used to immediate communication,” Tijerina said. “We help employees figure out what type of calls really need to be answered immediately or not. The driver can always pull over when it’s urgent.”

Additionally, if members of the general public know of a city or state’s ban on certain driving behavior, they can also serve as an additional enforcement component.

In the event of noncompliant driver behavior, consider different types of consequences depending on the severity of the situation. Agencies can mitigate potential hazards early by addressing smaller mistakes.

“If field supervisors see someone out of compliance, they have a gamut of things they can do from on-the-spot counseling to a one-on-one meeting to a written reprimand,” Dail said.

Changing Work Culture

Organizational culture can be defined as communal actions and values that contribute to the social and psychological environment of a work place. It plays a crucial role in shaping behavior within agencies. For example, if safe driving is emphasized in an employer’s operation, employees are more likely to incorporate it into their routine. 

In 2011, the City of Tulsa brought in a consultant to review issues relating to injury and Workers’ Compensation.

“We discovered that our goal should be in prevention and education, so we decided to work on this internally, developing a plan to turn our culture around by putting safety and health at the forefront of everything we do,” Tijerina said.

The program reduced the city’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reportable injuries by 45% from 2012 through 2014.

This success prompted the city’s new policy on distracted driving. Before a change is implemented, giving staff a chance to evaluate the proposal and be a part of the conversation can give every player a sense of value.

Make sure to provide employees with a transparent explanation for a given organizational change. “We have found that just telling someone that they have to do something differently is less effective than asking for their help to achieve a goal and providing examples of why the goal is important,” Worthington of Sonoma County said. “Wouldn’t you rather be a part of a solution to a problem?”

Though the City of Tulsa expected a three- to five-year implementation period before seeing change in employee behavior, the agency’s successful rollout plan allowed it to happen much faster.

Lorenzen of  Iowa DOT is also optimistic that positive work culture will influence personal behavior as well. “Especially if you drive in a state that doesn’t already have prohibitions on texting or hands-free devices, anything you can do to discourage your employees is good,” Lorenzen said. “We think the limitations are going to trickle down into their personal lives — it will become habit, and they won’t want to put themselves at risk when they’re not at work either.”

Iowa DOT’s Wilkinson weighs in on the topic as well: “From a culture standpoint, change doesn’t happen overnight — the safety program will essentially have to be institutionalized within the department.”

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